Vacation Stories: Sunset Limited
First off, this has nothing to do with the Cormac McCarthy play of the same name. I used that title either about the same time or slightly before he did. And we both took it from Amtrak, so there. Except my story isn’t two old guys sitting around whining like I take it his is from commercials I saw. Mine is about Frank Hemsky, a middle-aged nature photographer whose marriage finishes its downward spiral while he’s in the Everglades to take some pictures. Because he’s afraid of heights, Frank boards the Sunset Limited back to LA, but on board meets up with a woman.
So my version features sex on a train and McCarthy’s is two old guys whining. Come on, which would you rather read?
BTW, this is the only short story I’ve ever sold. I sold it for a whopping $5 to an ezine called Buddy Tales that like the Writer Buddy website that spawned it went under a long time ago. I think I spent the $5 on 3/4 of a lunch or something. Anyway, this is yet another of the excellent stories you can read as part of The Carnival Papers. Buy it now, now, NOW!!!
With his camera bag slung over one shoulder and the tripod under one arm, Frank Hemsky left the relative safety of the hiking trail, sinking up to his ankles in the spongy soil. He scanned the sawgrass for signs of alligators or any of the dozens of indigenous species to roam Everglades National Park and then splashed ahead to find a suitable location. Pausing to look at the lighted dial of his watch, he calculated he had three hours before sunrise.
The horizon was still a solid void of navy blue, but Frank knew where to go from his six previous expeditions into the Everglades over his twelve-year career. He counted the steps from the trail and padded deeper through the sawgrass of the marl prairie. At two hundred twenty-six, he stopped and took the tripod from under his arm. After extending the legs into the muck, he opened the camera bag and took out the Nikon 35mm he’d carried for the last ten years. With the efficiency of a trained assassin, Frank screwed on the 80-200mm zoom lens to capture a stand of trees when the sun peeked over the horizon.
The last weather report he’d listened to on the radio before leaving the campground had promised clear skies until mid-afternoon, when a storm system would roll in from the Gulf of Mexico. Frank lit a cigarette and blew out a line of smoke along with a sigh into the darkness. The storm would spoil a half-day of shooting, leaving him with nothing to do but wait in his tent and think of Tracy.
He’d called from a Burger King in Homestead, dropping the proper change into the slot to call Los Angeles. “Frank? Where are you?” she said, her voice cold, as though talking to a wrong number.
“I’m in Florida.”
“Florida? For how long?”
He cradled the receiver on his shoulder and patted his pockets to find a cigarette. As he collapsed against a poster of a Whopper, he saw the No Smoking sign and tossed the cigarette into the trash. “A couple days. I’ll be back next week.”
“I went to see Tom this afternoon. He says all you have to do is sign the papers and we can go forward.”
“Right. I’ll do it as soon as I get back.”
“Please, Frank, I don’t want to drag this out. Let’s just get it over with.”
“I will.” He hung up the telephone and, after staring at the pictures of oversized hamburgers above the counter for a minute, went outside to light a cigarette. He leaned against the brick wall of the restaurant until a teenage couple brushed past, clinging to each other as though conjoined. Frank shook his head and walked back to his rental car for the last leg of the journey.
The sound of splashing water brought him back to reality and he scanned the area with his flashlight to find the source of the noise. Alligators were known to roam through the marl prairies, but they rarely attacked humans unless provoked. Seeing nothing, Frank bent down to put out his cigarette and then dropped it into a Ziploc bag to discard once he got back to camp.
Still squatting, he examined the gold wedding band on his left hand Tracy had given him over five years ago. He thought of her then, unspoiled, with her dark hair pulled back into an unfashionable ponytail beneath her peaked tour guide’s hat. Like any of the wildlife at Yellowstone, taking her out of her natural habitat had led to disaster. The old instincts of kindness and humor had given way to the new ones of avarice and sullenness when it became clear he couldn’t afford the lifestyle of her new friends. It came as no surprise when she found someone who could.
He searched for an island among the standing water and plunged his hand into the mushy soil to scoop out a hole. Before he could twist the ring off his finger, he heard another splash and then fell backwards into the water as the lightning flash of a camera blinded him. When his vision cleared, he saw a woman standing next to his tripod, a disposable camera—the cardboard model they sold at the gift shop—in her long-fingered hands. “What are you doing?” he said.
“Sorry, I thought you were a gator,” she said, her voice weighted with the rich drawl of a Texan accent.
Frank sat up and tried to brush mud from his nylon jacket. “You should stick to the trails. It’s dangerous to go running around here.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve been here before,” he said.
“You looking for gators too?”
“Not if I can help it. You won’t get a decent picture of them anyway with that thing.”
She offered him a hand and pulled his larger frame from the marsh without even a grunt. She wore a man’s flannel shirt and blue jeans tucked into brown work boots. With her untamed hair—the same orange as the love vines creeping through the sawgrass—falling past her shoulders, she reminded him of the new rock bands coming out of Seattle he’d read about on the train. “What do you take pictures of then?” she asked.
“Oh, just about anything—trees, mountains, animals. I took some alligator shots last year.”
“Come here often?” She giggled and added, “Sorry, that sounds like a bad pick-up line. My name’s Chrissie by the way.”
“Frank. I make it here every couple years. This your first time?”
“Sure is. Last time I came to Florida, I got as far as Orlando. Thought I’d see what I missed.”
“It’s beautiful, but you should wait until the sun comes up.”
“I couldn’t sleep. Bad habit, I guess. Every weekday for five years I’ve gotten up at the same time to start my run.”
“School bus driver.” She pressed a finger into a flannel bulge above the waist of her jeans. “Should get into some of that exercise stuff though. You look like you keep in good shape.”
“It’s from lugging all this equipment around.” He covered his left hand with his right to mask the wedding ring he’d almost buried. “I didn’t mean earlier that you were out of shape. I think your shape is just fine.”
“Best landscape I’ve seen in a while.”
“You’re a lot better at this than the kids I pick up.”
“Why don’t you stick around? I’ll show you some tricks of the trade. Maybe we can even find a gator or two.”
As she held up her camera, he saw the glint of a diamond ring on one finger. “I should get going. It was nice to meet you Frank.”
“Maybe I’ll see you some other time.”
“I don’t know, it’s a pretty big park.” She turned and headed back across the flooded prairie until he could no longer make out her fiery hair in the darkness. After she’d gone, he bent down to form another hole and pulled off the golden ring. He plunged it into the springy ground and then swiped a mound of dirt over it. When he got to his feet, he lit another cigarette and saw the first pink bands of morning on the horizon. Time to get to work, he thought.
After three days and a dozen rolls of film, Frank emerged from the Everglades and drove back to Orlando to board the train for Los Angeles. He pressed down into the cushions of one of the chairs in his private cabin and watched the Florida panhandle roll past. The sun had begun to go down over Pensacola, the orange and yellow light reflecting off the silhouetted skyscrapers, whose tops were obscured by magenta clouds. His camera bag lay on the chair across from him, as distant as the moon. Another missed opportunity, he thought and closed his eyes to feel the vibration of the train as it thundered back to California, where the divorce papers waited.
From there would come the grim tasks of dividing their assets, finding a new place to live, and arranging visitation of Frosty, their albino English bulldog. His mind floated across the bayous and deserts between Pensacola and Los Angeles and up the steps of the ranch-style house he and Tracy had bought. He walked through the hallways, tagging each memento and knickknack as his or Tracy’s. His collection of Elvis records in the living room, each wrapped in plastic to ward off fingerprints. Her display of Barbie dolls in the guest bedroom, each behind glass to ward off dust. The shelves of souvenirs he’d bought her during his travels around the world: a greenstone necklace from New Zealand, a porcelain bell from the Netherlands, a matrioshka doll from the Ukraine shaped like a bowling pin. Would she want to keep these baubles or throw them in the garbage?
He opened his eyes and trudged out of the roomette to find something to eat. On his way to the dining car, he stopped at a row of coach seats when he saw a head of orange hair brushing against shoulders of plaid flannel. The woman had her head turned towards the window so he couldn’t see her face. It has to be her, he thought.
Frank leaned against the empty seat next to her and said, “I had a feeling I’d see you again.”
When the woman turned around, he saw it was Chrissie, but tears rimmed her green eyes. “Frank? What a coincidence. I didn’t think a big important photographer would ride the train.”
“Flying makes me nervous. I was just going to get a snack before turning in. You hungry?”
“I’m fine. Have a seat. Don’t worry, it’s empty.”
He sat down next to her and they watched the panhandle continue to roll past their window. “Did you find any gators?”
“Just you.” She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and a smile tickled her lips. “Did you get a lot of good pictures?”
“Quite a few. My toes are still prunes from walking through all that muck.”
“You sound committed to your work.”
“It’s a great racket. Can I buy you a drink or something?”
“No, that’s fine. I’m trying to stay away from that stuff. I figured they wouldn’t have any bars out in the swamp.”
“Oh,” Frank said, unable to think of anything more comforting to say.
“It’s a long story.”
“Where are you heading?”
“Well, there’s plenty of time then.”
She told him about her ten-year-old son’s losing battle with leukemia that had locked her in a losing battle with alcohol. The tears returned to her eyes as she told of squeezing his hand in those final moments of life, his eyes searching in vain to find her until the last breath wheezed from his chest. A week after the funeral, she took out a line of mailboxes before slamming the school bus into a parked car. The courts had taken first her license and then her husband when he filed for divorce. “I’ve been clean for the last month, but it’s so hard sitting around that empty house. I thought it would help if I got out for a little while, but it’s still there, waiting for me. Like a ghost, you know what I mean?”
“I know.” He told her about his crumbling marriage with Tracy culminating with the discovery of another man in his bed. “The divorce papers are waiting for me to sign.”
“Are you going to do it?”
“I don’t see any other choice.”
“Couldn’t you see one of those counselors or a minister?”
“Neither of us is very religious.” He looked out the window, but could see nothing except glimpses of individual lights in the distance. He reckoned they had to be in Mississippi by now. “I have a great idea. Since neither of us really wants to go home, let’s not do it.”
“You want to jump from the train?”
“We can get off when we reach New Orleans. Hang around there until Mardi Gras.” She frowned and he resisted the urge to slap his forehead for asking a recovering alcoholic to a drunken festival. “Or we could get off somewhere else.”
She reached over and squeezed his hand. “It’s a nice idea, but I should go home.”
Frank leaned back in the seat and thrashed around in an attempt to find a comfortable position. “These are tough to sleep in.”
“It’s all right. I don’t plan to get much sleep anyway.”
“I have a private cabin with plenty of room. I’d even let you pick which bunk is yours.”
A smile came to her face in increments, pulling at first one corner of her mouth and then the other. She again wiped tears from her eyes and nodded. “You’re on. Let me get my bag.” Frank took the carry-on bag, slinging it over his shoulder like his camera bag. He led her back to his roomette and ushered her inside. “I thought you said there were two beds.”
“The chairs fold down to make one and the other unfolds from up there.” Frank demonstrated how to bring the cabin’s two chairs together to make one bed and then pulled down the other from above the window. “Top or bottom?”
“I always like the top,” she said and winked.
Frank awoke some time during the night to the sound of the train’s brakes squeaking. He tightened his grip around Chrissie’s waist until the train came to a stop and then pressed his head against her shoulder. When his hand caressed hers, he touched the wedding ring on her finger she wore even after the divorce. He sighed and closed his eyes to feel the vibration of the train as it bore him home.
Friday is the last Vacation Story: Folksinger’s Blues